June 3, 2013
With few exceptions, commemorative coins of the United States of America deals with notable historical events, government institutions, parks and monuments, the military and sports. This is, of course, perfectly fine. It covers a large spectrum of what makes the USA the USA. However, I can't help but feel that American culture is not adequately being celebrated as it should be on U.S. coinage. After all, the United States has produced incredible artists, writers, architects and songwriters; individuals who have captured the world's attention and imagination, and have made this country a cultural superpower.
Other mints around the globe have done this, and the result has been successful and occasionally controversial.
First off, take the example from my home country of Canada. Canada's most celebrated artists were called "The Group of Seven" who were landscape painters in the early 20th century. These painters produced indelible images that are forever in the minds of all Canadians. You can find prints and books in every gift shop in the country. The Royal Canadian Mint recently produced a very limited-mintage series of 1oz silver coins commemorating the work of these artists. Each coin represents a painting from a different artist from Lawren Harris' "Toronto Street Winter Morning" whose technique was more clean and simplified, to Frederick Varley's "Stormy Weather" whose technique was more loose and painterly. This series seems to be a success so far, and the translation of the 2D painting into a 3D metal coin seems well done.
Another more famous example is the Royal Mint's John Lennon coin. The coin's design was chosen by popular vote on the Royal Mint's website, and the resulting £5 silver coin was sold out within a week. However, this coin wasn't a British coin in the strictest sense, but legal tender in the tiny Channel Island of Alderney.
How would this work in the U.S.? Everybody remembers the Elvis stamp of 1993 and what a hit that was, but could doing the same for a coin run the risk of being too kitsch for coin collectors who are used to designs that are a bit more traditional? As far as music goes, I think an Irving Berlin coin would be something special. Irving Berlin has one of the quintessential American stories, that of an immigrant fleeing oppression and coming to the U.S. and to freedom. I don't need to tell you how much his song "God Bless America" stirs up emotions when it's played at a ballgame. Irving Berlin on the obverse, lyrics to "God Bless America" on the reverse. I think that's a hit!
One very cool coin I'd like to see would be one commemorating Frank Lloyd Wright. Heck, that could be a half dollar, silver dollar and $5 gold series just to scratch the surface of the aspects of architecture and design he revolutionized. Maybe it wouldn't just be a simple round coin with Wright on the obverse, or the Guggenheim on the reverse; the coin could be in the shape of the Guggenheim itself.
Of course there are painters as well. While I don't think a Jackson Pollock would necessarily translate well onto a coin, there are many artists whose paintings could work well on a small metal disk. Edward Hopper immediately comes to mind; his paintings are unmistakably American and undeniably fascinating. I can definitely see his "Morning Sun" or "The Lighthouse at Two Lights" on a coin. One artist in particular whose work would be interesting to see in gold or silver would be that of Georgia O'Keeffe. Although the coin would be missing her vibrant colors, it would be able to show her smooth, bold shapes like in "Deer's Skull with Perndal." Of course the mint could make a colorized coin with a painting printed on it, but for me personally, and I speak for the majority of collectors out there, I think that would cross a line into tackiness... but maybe that could work for an Andy Warhol coin.
There is a potential for controversy with this idea, however. Take Ireland for example. This year Ireland introduced a 10 Euro coin commemorating James Joyce. The coin contains the sentence "Signatures of all things that I am here to read" which isn't a verbatim quote, but part of an artistic representation of Joyce that was intentional (so the Central Bank says). The Joyce estate claims it to be an error, is upset that they had no say in the design, and according to Joyce's grandson, the coin is "one of the greatest insults to the Joyce family that has ever been perpetrated in Ireland." Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, the coin is already sold out.
The U.S. Mint will be making a step towards coins celebrating the arts with the passage of HR2453, signed by President Obama on December 4, 2012. HR2453 is the Mark Twain Commemorative Coin Act. In 2016 the U.S. Mint will produce silver and gold coins commemorating the life and achievements of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, arguably America's best known author and greatest satirist. The tales of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer conjure up a lot of imagery in the mind that could make for a quite appealing coin.
The possibilities are really endless when it comes to recognizing the exceptional individuals that have made American imagination, creativity and ingenuity the envy of the world. Writers, sculptors, painters and poets, there are so many people truly worthy of commemoration.